Calling science back into the arts is a crucial gesture

Alessandro Ludovico

Why art and science are crucial.

Creating art with science principles is more crucial than ever. It pushes us off our endless flux of information, possibly confronting us with critical issues, through the facts of science and the often destabilising perspective of the artists.

Art made with science produces a specific aesthetics, appealing to the scientific rigour and methodology, which is frequently mediated by the physical presence of scientific machines and their encoded authority. Art made with science has a consequent quality of apparently being trustable up to point to be unappealable.

In a historical moment when any certainty, either recent or historical, can be virally questioned through a randomly rapid social media spontaneous (or artificially created to seem spontaneous) outrage, calling science back into the artistic discourse is a crucial gesture. Why sharing the sky is a universal gesture.

In the second decade of the 21st Century, social media have escalated to an unprecedented level the personal exchange of information. Which, even if at different ratios, whose most popular part is by far now purely visual. The omnipresence and proliferation of online visuals is expanding as a stable trend in mass media, since the technical transmissibility of images. Initially it was accomplished first through classic broadcasting systems (television, cinema, printed media and advertisement), and then increasingly consolidated with the personal dimension of broadcasting, fully realised once the high bandwidth internet has become accessible to the same masses. This “ocularcentrism” has been reflected in every other medium, from zines to video, and have progressively and dramatically reduced the amount of produced text content, privileging the visual at all levels. But the so-called ‘sharing’ practice on the various social media platforms, is indeed a ‘publishing gesture’, or a release of information which becomes ‘public’ the very moment some of the friends/followers notice it in their own customised timelines/streams (as we can argue that it is not public if literally nobody notice it within his own crowded information jungle). The underlying golden rule in these processes seems to ‘be popular’. This is often accomplished using equally universal visual symbols, which anybody can feel related to, attracted to/repulsed by, or by using the same social media jargon, everybody can feel “engaged” by. Among these symbols, the sky is certainly one of the most ‘universal’, and so successfully ‘shareable’, with its fascinating blue colour and grand distance, which allows us to historically project onto it a lot of different feelings, including our future, some of our dreams and the need to overcome our limits dictated by gravity. The sky is appealing potentially everybody with its mesmerising finiteness/infiniteness (it is our visual gateway to the universe), familiarity/abstraction (it is one of our main daily reference both, when we see it and when we don’t), closeness/distance (it is part of our visual landscape, but we never truly reach it), becoming also an instant mental refuge from the possible uneasiness of our human dimension. Then sharing it means to share a specific space, both a mental and a physical space.

Why measuring blue sky’s colour can become a political gesture.

When Horace-Bénédict de Saussure devised his ‘cyanometer’ instrument in the 18th century [1], to quantify the blue sky’s colour intensity, he was serving a specific scientific need. He was trying to prove that the colour of the sky was dependent on the amount of suspended particles in the atmosphere. So through his paper instrument, died with 53 different shades of Prussian blue, he measured the colour of the sky at Geneva, Chamonix, and Mont Blanc, historically proving his thesis. Alexander von Humboldt did similar experiments during his voyages in South America, concluding that the blueness “indicates transparency and the amount of water vapour” [2]. While de Saussure measured the 39th degree of blue on the Mont Blanc, von Humboldt measured the 46th degree of blue on an ascent of the Andean mountain Chimborazo.

The immediacy of the instrument has been frozen for a long time, but the interest towards the sky as universal, shared and symbolic visual territory has never lowered. Yoko Ono in 1971 published with Edition Staeck (by artist Klaus Staeck) an artwork edition titled “A Hole To See The Sky Through“ [3], consisting of a postcard with a small hole in the middle and the title printed on it as both a statement and and an invitation to use it accordingly. In its classic conceptual art spirit, Ono tried to formalise a small gesture made through an affordable material to induce a possibly inspiring, momentarily different view of our familiar assumed reality. The cyanometer as an instrument has been relatively soon dismissed, but a couple of centuries later it has been rediscovered by the “Institute of General Theory”, an artist who developed a “New Cyanometer” in 2009, quite similar to the original concept, but with 64 shades digitally produced. [4]. Here the artist was manifesting a possible collective observation, suggesting a new dimension of the portable tool, changing consequently its possible extent.

Being explored with a chromatic scope, the collective observation transcends its, still present, scientific value, possibly becoming an hymn to the awareness of environmental changes, personally and intuitively. This is the basis onto which an all rounded critical gesture has been built. Why the collective dimension of data makes a difference.

Ono’s work can be taken as an initial reference to Martin Bricelj Baraga’s “Cyanometer: Monument to the blueness of the sky” which takes several steps up, to unify the original scientific rigour with the liberating collective potential. The project brings permanent highly technological instruments to the collectivity, enabling both, the emotional element and the precise international data accumulation. Baraga elaborated a sophisticated IT ‘totem’, installed in public places (two have been permanently set in place in Wroclaw and Ljubljana). They gather precious environmental data through various sensors and external data stream, and take periodical automatic pictures of the sky. This data is aimed to measure the quality of air consistently with the original cyanometer proven theory. It is digitally archived along with some analysis, and is then available to the scientific community, too. So it has already proven, for example, how the Ljubljana mayor claims about the greenness of the city were actually partially wrong. The project, in fact extends the perception of the sky through time, instigating a comparison of colour shades as historical investigation, and inherent recalling the realistic and real representations of it in art history (as the celebrated skies in Van Gogh’s or Turner’s paintings). And the Cyanometer qualities of interaction with the public, combined with the clever use of solar power and a polished mirror exterior confront the viewer with a new way of making art public [5]. The key is in the combination of a sophisticated and easy to understand environmental data displayed on a monolithic, monumental public sculpture. Data about pollution and its inevitable relationship with sky blueness is displayed and stored, allowing a re-appropriation of the sky, finally perceived as a common and a live collective resource. Furthermore Baraga produced stacks of postcards with his own version of the original cyanometer, allowing everybody to use it potentially anywhere and to send pictures, or just report, in an extended collective gesture which possibly might feed even more the scientific research. The sky is both our limit and our gateway, and so this dynamically ever-changing sculpture simultaneously looks forward and back.

Why the cyanometer talks about our future.

This two streams of information, the pollution and the blueness, resonate as the two sides of both society and technology, going in different directions. They represent the beauty which inspires and supports us and our inability to manage the artificiality we also create. It shines of a beauty which holds the truth of its hidden, pervasive and present shared dangers. This relationship between an attractive aesthetic and its hidden dangerous meanings is perfectly expressing the complexity and duality of contemporaneity, and its omnipresent ambiguity. This ambiguity is particularly embedded in the relationship between technology and nature, as the former is created to exploit the latter and its resources beyond what would be sustainable. But then technology it is often contrastingly used to better understand nature, supporting natural processes in order to recover from the previously provoked damages, in a sort of infinite loop. It is one of the contradictions embedded in science now, elevating our understanding of the world through the construction of tools which are structurally damaging it.

An open relationship between art and science, then, would crystallise this ambiguity at a new aesthetic level, showing its striking contradictions outside of the art circles, gathering in museums and galleries, and eventually installing it in public. This new kind of critical public art can finally and hopefully completely dismiss the purpose of urban decoration, intervening with a critical purpose in the public space, intrinsically augmenting it, and becoming a precious common, which would contribute to the general knowledge and personal perception of our close and distant realities.

Dr. Alessandro Ludovico is Associate Professor in Art, Design and Media at the Winchester School of Art. He is a media theorist, editor and artist, and completed a PhD by Published Work in English and Media at the Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge.

Martin Bricelj Baraga is artist, curator & director of MoTA – Museum of Transitory Art, Ljubljana. He creates interactive works and sculptures that explore spaces between environment, nature, technology and humans.

The Cyanometer by the artist Martin Bricelj Baraga is realized by SKICA Berlin – Cultural Center of the Republic of Slovenia, in cooperation with Netzwerk | Medien | Kunst as well as Technische Sammlungen Dresden and is supported by funds from the Embassy of the Republic of Slovenia Berlin as well as the City of Dresden, Department for Culture and Monument Protection.
[1] H-B de Saussure, Description d‘un cyanomètre ou d‘un appareil destiné à mesurer la transparence de l‘air, Mem. Acad. Roy. Turin, 1788-89, 4, 409 [2] [3] Yoko Ono, A Hole To See The Sky Through, Heidelberg, Germany: Edition Staeck, 1971 [4] [5]